TORONTO – Think back to the end of the 2013-14 season, the completion of what 76ers fans know as Tank I.
At 19-63, the Sixers were the NBA's second-worst team behind the Milwaukee Bucks. The Orlando Magic had the league's third-worst record, followed by the Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz. The Los Angeles Lakers (sixth) weren't much better, nor were the Sacramento Kings (seventh), Detroit Pistons (eighth), or Cleveland Cavaliers (ninth).
The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Phoenix Suns were also in the lottery, teams that missed out on postseason play.
All of those squads embarked on rebuilding strategies with the hope of bringing a championship to their city.
Let's take a look at where the Sixers stack up following three more seasons of tanking and 32 games of trying to win this season.
The Sixers dropped to 14-18 after Saturday's 102-86 loss to Toronto Raptors here at Air Canada Centre. They have lost five straight and nine of their last 10. Joel Embiid, the team's towering franchise player, finished with 14 points, a game-high eight rebounds, three blocks and five turnovers in 22 minutes, 57 seconds of play after missing the previous three games with back tightness. His back and knee problems have led to Embiid missing eight games total this season.
His health, along with the team's turnovers and long-range shooting problems, are making the Sixers' quest to reach the playoffs harder than expected.
While they have potential all-NBA talent in Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers are light years away from the Cavaliers and Celtics in terms of being in position to win a title. The Bucks and Timberwolves are also ahead of them in the rebuilding process.
That's not to take anything away from the Sixers, who are clearly ahead of the Magic, Kings, and Suns.
Building a contender
The three avenues to rebuilding are the NBA draft, trades, and free-agent signings.
Boston has used all three effectively.
It drafted contributors in starters Jaylen Brown (third overall in 2016) and Jason Tatum (third in June) and to a lesser extent sixth man Marcus Smart (sixth in 2014). The Celtics used cap space to sign four-time all-star Al Horford (July 2016) and 2017 all-star Gordon Hayward (July) to free-agent deals. And they used some of their assets to acquire four-time all-star Kyrie Irving in a trade with Cleveland in August.
As the top team in the Eastern Conference, there's no question that the Celtics, who were 26-9 heading into Saturday's matchup with the Chicago Bulls, are far ahead of a Sixers squad with the conference's 10th-best record. Great moves by general manager Danny Ainge — not a four-season tank to acquire assets — got the Celtics where they are.
The same can be said about the Cavs. However, Cleveland had some luck in progressing quicker than most of the struggling teams from 2013-14.
The Cavs were fortunate to win the 2014 draft lottery despite having just a 1.7 percent chance of doing so. They used the pick to select Andrew Wiggins first overall.
They instantly went from rebuilding to NBA title contender when LeBron James opted in July 2014 to return to Cleveland after four seasons with Miami. Focused on winning immediately, the Cavs shipped Wiggins and 2013 first-overall pick Anthony Bennett to Minnesota for four-time all-star Kevin Love in a three-way trade that involved the Sixers.
Cleveland made several free-agent signing and trades that led to its winning the 2016 title and making three straight NBA Finals appearances.
And the Cavaliers are still making moves.
They picked up 2017 all-star Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick, and Miami's 2020 second-rounder from the Celtics in exchange for Irving. Plus, they signed 12-time all-star Dwyane Wade right before the season. While not the player he used to be, Wade has been great for the Cavs' second unit.
Making the most of a situation
Milwaukee isn't a top choice for of a lot of A-list free agents.
As a result, it's important that the Bucks make the right draft picks. And, for the most part, they have. And it was their pick in the draft before the 2013-14 season that has enabled Milwaukee to have a 17-13 record and the Eastern Conference's fourth-best record heading in Saturday's game in Charlotte.
The Bucks selected Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick of the 2013 draft. A face of the NBA, the 2017 all-star is arguably one of the all-time draft-day sleepers. The Sixers actually passed up on Antetokoumpo twice for two guys — Nerlens Noel (sixth, in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans) and Michael Carter-Williams (11th) — who are no longer on their roster.
The following summer, the Bucks drafted Jabari Parker second overall. Two anterior cruciate ligament injuries set Parker back. However, they made another draft-day steal in 2016 by selecting Malcolm Brogdon, who would win the 2017 rookie of the year award, in the second round.
Milwaukee also received a boost after trading with the Suns for Eric Bledsoe in November. So, at this moment, they're farther ahead of the Sixers because they are more balanced with veterans and young guys.
The same can be said about the Timberwolves. Like the Sixers, they traded young assets. Minnesota was able to receive much more in return.
They acquired three-time all-star Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton from the Bulls in June for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen. Butler will be under contract through next season and has a player option for 2019-20.
Meanwhile, the Timberwolves also signed veteran starters Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson and veteran reserve Jamal Crawford to multiyear free-agent deals.
One can argue that Embiid is as talented as Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns and Simmons on par with Wiggins. However, the Timberwolves are ahead because they have an established veteran all-star on their roster along with several veterans who will return next season.
The Sixers will have the cap space to go after A-list free agents in July.
Because of shrinking trade values, they just weren't able to acquire an all-star talent during trades involving Noel and Jahlil Okafor, the third pick of the 2015 draft.
The Sixers received Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and 2017 and 2020 second-round picks from the Dallas Mavericks for Noel in February. Anderson is a solid situational rotation player and one of the team leaders. Bogut never played for the Sixers. Meanwhile, the Sixers received Trevor Booker from the Brooklyn Nets for Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and a 2018 second-round pick.
Booker is a solid backup power forward who is a great pickup for a team trying to reach the postseason. But he'll become an unrestricted free agent in July. The same for starting shooting guard JJ Redick and backup center Amir Johnson, who both signed one-year deals this past summer. Plus, much is unknown about the role first-overall pick Markelle Fultz will play since he has been sidelined for 26 straight games with right shoulder issues.
These are all reasons the Cavs, Celtics, Timberwolves, and Bucks are all ahead of the Sixers.